The Apostles of Christ were messengers, delegates of the Messiah with the ordained power to heal sicknesses, cast out demons, and raise the dead. They were witnesses of the risen Christ, for they had received their apostleship directly from Jesus Himself. In some cases—such as Stephen (Acts 6:8) and Philip (Acts 8:6), who were delegates of the Apostles—God attested His redeeming purpose in and through those who represented the gospel that the Apostles proclaimed. The coming of Christ brought the inauguration of the kingdom of God. In the earthly ministry of Jesus, the kingdom of God began to advance against the kingdom of Satan, and the declaration of the coming of the kingdom was given divine authentication (Mark 3:20–27).
As for the place in the history when God’s redemptive purposes culminated, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian Gentile converts: “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19–20). In the same manner, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, affirming the relation of the apostolic witness to the foundational era of the church: “Truly the signs of an Apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds” (2 Cor. 12:12).
It is clear that it was not Paul’s primary intention to instruct these churches about the revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit; neither was he concerned with making a defense as to the passing away of such gifts (1 Cor. 13:8–10). Rather, the significance of Paul’s references to the foundation of the church and the attestation of the Apostles’ divinely ordained authority has to do with God’s purposes of redemption as manifested with divine revelation. Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson comments: “Apostles exercised a foundational ministry which was given appropriate attestation. As a result, manifestations of the Spirit, which served as confirmations of new revelation, appeared in the churches. The primary function of these gifts itself suggests their impermanence” (The Holy Spirit, p. 226).
Simply put, the sign gifts of the Holy Spirit established the witness of those upon whom the household of God was founded. As the Apostles proclaimed the greatest news that the world had ever heard, God established the truth of redemption with the greatest works that the world had ever seen—the blind received sight, the lame were made to walk, lepers were made clean, terminal diseases were purged, dead men were made alive, and, above all, the gospel was preached to the poor (Matt. 11:5; Isa. 35:5–6).
When I am asked to explain particular passages of Scripture that, according to some people, teach that the sign gifts of the apostolic era have not ceased, I usually respond with this question: “Do you believe that Scripture is the final Word of God?” Thankfully, every answer has been in the affirmative; still, the inquirer usually presses me with another question, such as, “What biblical evidence is there to support your view that the sign gifts have ceased?” I often respond similarly: “What biblical evidence is there to support your view that the sign gifts have continued?” At that point, the discussion usually dives to the ground in a tailspin of emotions and fanciful maneuvering. My opponent usually relates experience after experience, with great intensity, then levels his most disparaging attack: “Are you telling me you don’t believe that the Holy Spirit is still at work?”
This type of remark is quite typical, and it is perhaps the most untenable conclusion that many charismatics have made. Although we do not affirm the continuation of the sign gifts, by no means do we disavow the genuine work of the Spirit of the living God. On the contrary, through the exercise of the non-revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit still displayed in the church—preaching, teaching, exhortation (Rom. 12:6–8)—we, who were enemies of God, dead in our trespasses, have become living sons of the living God. Indeed, the Holy Spirit has worked great wonders in our hearts, and He who established His redemptive plan before the foundation of the world has carried out His plan with great signs and wonders, and has sealed us in the Holy Spirit for our day of redemption (Eph. 4:30).